Principles of Nature: towards a new visual language
© copyright 2003-2008Wayne Roberts. All rights reserved.

Parallels between art and science

This page is largely based upon (or quoted from) the chapter, Connections between 20th century art & science, in the author's book, Principles of nature; towards a new visual language, WA Roberts P/L Canberra. 2003. [Used with permission of the author] The book contains reproductions of related historical artworks not included on the web site.


The pioneering work of much twentieth century abstract art has sown a seed—rooted in the ground of Kandinsky's ‘ inner meaning’. Artists faced many challenges in exploring the new territories at the expressive frontier of their respective media. Not least, was that there has existed, in virtually every age, an inertial resistance to change favouring those particular cultural or societal attitudes in currency. For many early twentieth century abstractionists this meant that, like Copernicus and Galileo centuries before, they too would have to wait for popular culture to catch up and cotton on to the validity of the seemingly eccentric focus of their less Earth-centred compositions—ones that followed a new ‘elliptical line of reasoning’. (W. Roberts, 2003, p. 55)

Seurat - Einstein / Monet - Maxwell:—science parallels in the study of light

The shift in emphasis from narrative to abstraction in visual art saw an extension of human perception and ideation which broadened the playing field and opened the door to new associations of ideas, colours, and forms. Artists peered beyond the detachment and separateness of objects within a landscape and came to see and paint light itself as a vehicle or carrier of abstract information from which the eye could reconstruct contexts of forms and meanings (and of which they were part). So too, scientists were attempting to see beyond the surface of things with ‘looking devices’ more sensitive than the human eye but whose pictures consisted in ‘clicks’ rather than in colours or tones.

Seurat's divisionist technique which divided light and colour into a pixelated array of particles is seen to parallel the scientific discovery that light does indeed behave as particles (later named ‘ photons’), and anticipates the digital age of ‘the pixel’. Seurat's brilliant intuition and work (as exemplified in Study for le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp, 1885...) in fact pre-dates Einstein's explanation of the empirically observed ‘photo-electric effect’ in which the young Einstein proposed the existence of tiny particles or quanta of light in a paper written in 1905, and for which he was subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize.

Monet's paintings (for example, Haystacks...), on the other hand, were more concerned with the wave-like properties of light : the way light vibrates, the way it bends and diffracts around forms and edges. His Rouen Cathedral series reduces its majestic facade to a vibrating symphony of diffraction gratings. These curious rippling 'interference fringes' are the well-known properties of wave interactions.

Either way, both Monet's 'waves' and Seurat's 'particles' showed that at small distances, edges break up and dissolve. Matter is as ephemeral as light; light is as tangible as matter. The philosophical implications were eroding unassailable 'separateness'. Matter is a form of light; light is a form of matter. Einstein again was to confirm this mathematically, E=mc2 . Science went on to confirm it empirically. Distinctions were becoming somewhat less distinct. And separateness was beginning to be seen more in terms of connectedness.

Perhaps nowhere more did Nature dissolve than in a waterlily pond and that too in the eye of Claude Monet . Here, horizonless, forms swam free, scattered by ripples into shards and fleeting glimpses of colour. Vision itself became as fluid. Science's new theory of Quantum Mechanics was showing that 'observer' and 'observed' are inseparable. 'Reading' depends upon 'reader'. Certainly, looking across his pond, Monet must have marvelled at how different the same surface can appear from different angles and different viewpoints. Its chameleon surface seemed endless and ever new. Its colours and forms—boundless, folded into countless new harmonies and rhythms. Its compositions: inexhaustible and dynamic. No wonder then, that in his quest towards light , this was for him the perfect looking-glass. In the later 20th century theory, Quantum Electrodynamicists also accounted for this wave-like effect in terms of a particle-theory of light .(W. Roberts, 2003, pp. 55-56)

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